Review by Remy Wilkins
“Birdman is the thing with feathers,” to adapt a line from Emily Dickinson to describe Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The Birdman perches in the soul of Riggan Thomson, played by the indomitable Michael Keaton, and functions as hope, the spirit rising above the quotidian. There is also a mixture of Macbeth and the Icarus myth mixed in to further buoy the tale, but despites its fanciful bursts of magic the movie at heart is about Reality. Birdman was a superhero played by Riggan, a movie star on the wane, back when he was young and relevant. He made his millions and now he wants to make his reputation by financing his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story starring himself.
Michael Keaton is a Hollywood treasure and one of the chief delights of Birdman is watching him work. The story itself is a fairly straightforward tale with an entertaining little contrivance to draw the eye. Riggan worries about the budget with his agent and close friend Jake (a docile Zach Galifianakis), coddles, cajoles and canoodles his co-actors (respectively, Naomi Watts, Ed Norton and Andrea Riseborough), while keeping tabs on his newly rehabbed daughter Sam (Emma Stone). The gamut of barriers and blowups is predictable, ranging from rousing (a drunken excoriation of a female theater critic) to dreadful (a rooftop seduction) and the climax is telegraphed in a nonsubtle way (much in the same way as spoilers from this point onward).
Amidst this the avian alter-ego grouses about the tragic dismissiveness toward action films and strokes Riggan’s ego. Most times he is a disembodied voice, but other times he appears pinioned and brooding over Riggan’s shoulder. Riggan also displays, when alone, a telekinesis, which is the less nerdy way of saying he has Jedi powers. He spins objects, tosses things across the room with a demonstrative finger and levitates in the air. It’s all in his head as the movie makes clear by showing his Jedi temper tantrum turn into a physical thrashing of his dressing room when his agent enters or when his flight over the city ends with him running into the theater followed by a taxi driver demanding to be paid.
The real star of Birdman is Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, who, now with Gravity and Birdman, has established himself as one of the foremost camera choreographers. The long takes, digitally stitched together to look like a single shot, give the film a frenetic yet fluid quality. The camera swoops, whorls and ascends immersing the audience in the action and anxieties of rehearsals and human conflict. Added to this is the soundtrack composed entirely of percussives by the accomplished jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. The staccato trills and stuttering beats adds a fitting layer of disfunction to the film, exemplifying the halts and misfires of the characters.
The film concludes with Riggan throwing himself out a hospital window. When his daughter returns to the room she looks down, then looking upwards and brightens into a smile. Whether he falls or flies is unanswered, but this seems to be where Ignorance becomes an Unexpected Virtue. Ignorance is clearly connected to interpretation, something hinted at early with a showy quote taped to Riggan’s mirror: “A Thing is a Thing, not what is said of that Thing,” which perhaps is a reference to the Wallace Stevens poem “Not Ideas About the Thing, but the Thing Itself”. This is referenced again when Riggan castigates Tabitha Dickinson, the theater critic, for intending to pan his play without watching it. He snatches her review a reads it over: “Callow”. A label. “Lackluster”. Label. “Marginalia”. Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. None the less... label. All labels.” In the end she is won over by Riggan’s unexpected ending: "Thompson has unwittingly given birth to a new form that can only be described as supra-realism.” But as we know, this is just Things said about the Thing. Just like the play title What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, not love itself, but the things said about it. Criticism is just illusion and self-deception or as Riggan says, “You can’t even see it if you don’t label it. You mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge.” So whether we want to buy into Riggan’s delusional power and assume he really did sprout wings and fly or plummeted to his death, or perhaps the final scene is metaphor for some other end, it doesn’t matter, since only the Thing Itself matters.
Iñárritu seems to be of two minds, he mocks superhero films, but buttresses his film with its tropes and moneyshots, he both dismisses criticism and has the critic won over by the “supra-realism” of the story, he undermines the supernatural powers of Riggan and then demands the audience treat them real. Iñárritu wants the gritty tragedy, but the Hollywood (re: Oscar winning) ending. The question of Reality is raised within the movie, primarily by Mike Shiner, Riggan’s scene stealing co-star, who views the stage not only as real art (unlike movies, for instance), but also real life. During one of the previews he steps out of character and abuses the audience: “You people are pathetic. Put the cell phones down and join the real world! Will somebody please just live in the real world?!” He later tells Sam that on stage he’s real: “I don't pretend. Not out there. Just about every place else, but never out there.”
It is here that the Macbeth connection makes sense. Riggan wants to do real art, he’s looking to establish his legacy. Tabitha claims he’s never done anything real. His own daughter sees his play as a mere vanity project. She tells him that he ignores the real world: “You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist.” (At the end she reverses her father’s inexistence by establishing a twitter account for him). But at this point he seeks to establish himself in the world much like Macbeth wished to establish his line. In the movie Riggan is Macbeth and Birdman is his lady, egging him on (and who eventually silenced). He adds to his play fog and people in tree costumes, telling his agent that it’s for a “dream sequence” reminiscent of Macbeth’s vision of Birnam Wood. Riggan also has visions, and his hubris by the end costs him everything. It is no accident that Iñárritu described Birdman as a tragedy even if he couldn’t carry out his ending explicitly.
Nonetheless, the movie is remarkable despite its flaws. Iñárritu’s bold experiment, strong cast, and innovative storytelling and staging keep the eye engaged even if it is -as the drunkard says- “but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
- Release DateNovember 14, 2014
Good review, old chum. I have trouble getting into existential crisis movies after having five children, which leaves one with no time for such things, but this movie was a delight to watch and your analysis was enlightening. Especially on the “Thing is what it is” tip.